A Dazzling Collection of Op-Ed Artwork
All the Art That’s Fit to Print (and Some That Wasn’t): Inside the New York Times Op-Ed Page
By Jerelle Kraus
Columbia University Press
280 pages; $34.95
Book review by Carl Sessions Stepp
Carl Sessions Stepp (firstname.lastname@example.org) began writing for his hometown paper, the Marlboro Herald-Advocate in Bennettsville, South Carolina, in 1963, after his freshman year in high school. He studied journalism at the University of South Carolina, where he edited The Gamecock.
After college, he worked for the St. Petersburg Times and the Charlotte Observer before becoming the first national editor at USA Today in 1982. In 1983, he joined the University of Maryland journalism faculty full time.
In the ensuing 30 years, he also has served as senior editor and book reviewer for AJR, writing dozens of pieces. He has been a visiting writing and editing coach for news organizations in more than 30 states.
Here's something you didn't see on the New York Times op-ed page: a nude drawing of Henry Kissinger's backside, with unflattering tattoos illustrating an essay that accused the controversial diplomat of war crimes.
To the page's art director, the work by prominent caricaturist David Levine was "a satiric tour de force." To her boss, it was "awful..a cheap shot."
As often happens, the boss prevailed. But now you can see that drawing and hundreds more (most of which did make it into print) in this dazzling coffee table book by a veteran Times art director.
The artists range from Günter Grass to Andy Warhol, Maurice Sendak to Edith Vonnegut, and the drawings from baffling to brilliant. As displayed in the newspaper, they can seem like visual background noise. But in the book, isolated from the text, they transfix your attention as exquisite conceptual commentary.
Op-ed artwork, or "idea-based imagery," was introduced with the Times' second opinion page in 1970. It became, Jerelle Kraus writes grandly, "a fertile, globally influential idiom that reached beyond narrative for metaphor and changed the very purpose and potential of illustration."
Or, as she puts it much more modestly, the drawings showed off "the artist's astonishing ability to condense." To illustrate a letter objecting to Disneyland Paris, for instance, Viktor Koen put mouse ears on the Mona Lisa. R.O. Blechman movingly captured 9/11 grief by drawing a heart with the twin towers silhouetted inside.
Beyond providing an archive of museum-quality art (some of it actually shown in the Louvre), this book presents uncommon insights into artists' minds and work habits.
Typically, artists didn't even read the manuscript they were illustrating, to avoid being "too literal." Instead, they received a general briefing and developed one or more sketches for the art director to "sell" to editorial page czars.
That "sketch-approval limbo dance" offers tantalizing backstage glimpses of decision-making at the Times, where sensitivities to art can be even touchier than to text.
Naturally, illustrators constantly test art directors, who test section editors, who stalwartly detect male genitalia embedded in everything from the spur of a boot to the elongated nose of an alien to a thermometer surrounded by snowflakes ("It's an ejaculation," then-Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines objected).
Sharp political edges also get art killed: showing an Army recruiter in a Klan hood ("We can't picture the army as racist!"), or PLO leaders as vipers or even a flag-draped coffin in 2008. An editor stopped the presses to kill a Garry Trudeau piece because of one objectionable word (no longer remembered, sadly).
Kraus and the artists chafe at the paper's built-in circumspection, which she calls "watering down the wit and sacrificing any semblance of fun on the altar of caution." One art director even sneaked into the composing room and restored a banished drawing, his job saved only when the publisher the next day lauded the page.
Kraus takes the expected jabs at higher-ranking editors but comes across as particularly vicious toward Raines ("lips that snap and snarl..the forked tongue of a charming conman...blind to his own rancid reputation").
She loves her artists, though, and includes fascinating interviews. Describing how he "wanted my drawings to engage," the prolific Brad Holland explains, "I internalized the public issues. Then I rooted through the junkyard of pre-consciousness. The pictures that came out were inkblots. See in them what you want."
Repeatedly, the book leaves you enthralled at artists' ability to convey so much emotion and information yet make room for abstraction and ambiguity.
It underlines how artists, like many other journalists, burn with an inexhaustible, irresistible, semi-neurotic passion to express themselves and draw others toward Great Truths. "Your responsibility is to put your deepest soul on paper," says Roland Topor. To which a colleague responds irreverently, "Without an outlet, Topor would have been an ax murderer."
Carl Sessions Stepp (email@example.com), AJR's senior contributing editor, teaches at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.